Passenger numbers at El Paso International Airport hit an all-time high in 2018, and although it may still be one of the smaller regional airports in Texas and the USA, it is not to be underestimated, writes Joe Bates.
Unlike some of its bigger neighbours to the east, El Paso isn’t connected to the world by a huge route network and doesn’t boast a huge population to drive the airport’s growth.
El Paso International Airport is, however, a vital economic generator for the west Texas city. A rising star in terms of traffic growth, the airport is also in the final stages of putting together a new master plan that will determine how its key infrastructure will be developed over the next 20 years.
Director of aviation, Monica Lombraña, cannot divulge the exact details of the master plan while it is still being drawn up, but after 18 years at the gateway, including the last decade in the top job, she is well aware of what is required to take El Paso International Airport (ELP) to the next level.
“We want to make the airport even more accessible, easy to use and operationally efficient, and this will essentially mean improving and expanding the existing facilities to ensure that we are equipped to meet future demand,” enthuses Lombraña.
“With two commercial runways, one of which is 12,010ft long, and a GA [general aviation] runway, we have more than enough airfield capacity for the foreseeable future, so our efforts will be concentrated on enhancements to the passenger terminal and experience.
Expanding and reconfiguring ELP’s security checkpoint and ticketing areas are likely to figure high on the agenda as the airport looks to reduce today’s peak time congestion and equip it to handle more passengers in the future.
Lombraña reminds me that the airport basically incorporates and has been built around the original terminal building that was built in 1941, and that this has not made developing the airport easy over the years.
But develop it has, with today’s ELP boasting a terminal building and east and west piers (Concourses A and B) that between them offer 15 gates.
Indeed, over $200 million has been invested on upgrading the airport’s facilities in the last five years as part of its ongoing capital improvement programme.
This has included creating a playground area for kids and revamping the airport’s retail and F&B offerings in tandem with concessionaires HMSHost and Paradies Lagardère.
ELP has also invested in a super-fast and free to use Wi-Fi service and introduced new lighting, flooring, comfortable seating and workstations to improve the ambiance of the airport.
Talking about ELP’s new retail/F&B outlets, Lombraña says: “We want to offer passengers a good mix of local and national brands, and I feel that we are getting there by listening to what our travellers want and delivering whenever possible.”
Boosting non-aviation related revenues
One thing very much on ELP’s side in terms of its future development is the size of the airport site, which at 7,000 acres is considerable for a gateway handling under five million passengers per annum.
The amount of land at its disposal has already allowed ELP to become a pioneer in non-aeronautical land development at a US airport and Lombraña certainly doesn’t hide the fact that this is a side of the business that she would like to expand more in the future.
To date, over 200 commercial businesses and industrial operations are located within ELP’s Butterfield Trail Industrial Park and Butterfield Trail Air Cargo Center as well as the Global Reach Science & Technology Park and the Southern Industrial Park adjacent to the airport.
Within the industrial parks are Butterfield Trail Golf Club, Lone Star Golf Club and more than 900 acres of fully developed industrial and retail property that supports light manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and transportation operations, as well as call centres, hotels, retail, and restaurants.
And with no residential areas to worry about as ELP is bordered by a sizeable US Department of Defense facility to the north and the east (Fort Bliss), within reason, there is little to restrict it in the respect of the type of non-aviation relation commercial facilities it can develop on its doorstep.
Lombraña says: “El Paso really has been at the forefront of the development of industrial parks on airports since the early 1980s to accommodate demand for the warehousing and US distribution of goods manufactured across the border in Mexico.
“This is still an important part of the business today, but the industrial parks are also home to a number of companies carrying out aviation related services, and this is something we are well placed to develop further going forward.”
Largely due to the success of its business parks, non-aeronautical activity today accounts for 72% of ELP’s total revenues, which is incredibly high for a US airport.
Lombraña is proud of ELP’s success in ACI’s 2018 Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer excellence awards, the Texas gateway finishing equal top with Ottawa in the 2-5 million passengers per annum category for North America.
She says the award means so much because it is based on direct feedback from passengers, but stresses that although the accolade is “awesome”, ELPs approach to the results each year is not to focus on what it does well, but rather on where improvements can be made.
“I think taking this approach and looking at what we can do better is the best way to gain true value from the survey,” says Lombraña, noting that the faster Wi-Fi speeds, playground, new furniture and flooring are all the result of listening to the feedback of travellers in the ASQ programme.
“I also have to add that El Paso International Airport is a department of the City of El Paso and, as such, our strategic plans are very much aligned and focused on providing exemplary customer service. “We live by our strategic plan. Staff training is based on it and customer service and safety and security really are our priorities. Our mission is to make travelling through El Paso International Airport as easy and as enjoyable as possible.”
This, she says, encompasses everything from being polite and courteous to passengers and having clean restrooms to making sure that any construction work has little or no impact on passengers and their airport experience.
A total of 3.2 million passengers passed through ELP in 2018, a healthy 8% upturn on the previous year, which Lombraña attributes to a strong US economy and additional frequencies added by the airlines.
The airport is served by seven airlines today (Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United), which between them operate just over 50 daily flights to 14 US destinations.
Dallas (American, Southwest), Los Angeles (American, Southwest), Houston (Southwest, United), Las Vegas (Allegiant, Southwest) and Austin (Southwest) are its top five routes in terms of traffic numbers.
Other popular routes served non-stop from ELP include Phoenix Sky Harbor (American, Southwest), San Antonio (Southwest), Chicago (American, Frontier and United), Denver (Frontier, Southwest, United) and Atlanta (Delta).
They ensure that Southwest and American are the biggest operators at ELP today, accounting for 42% and 31% respectively of the traffic. United (13%) Delta (9%) and Alaska (2.5%) complete the top five.
The route network also means that ELP is essentially an O&D gateway that 100% serves the domestic market, and Lombraña is honest enough to admit that this is unlikely to change any time soon due to the hub and spoke system that US airlines utilise and the proximity of Juarez’s Abraham González International Airport, which is literally just the other side of the Rio Grande.
“Developing an international route network is one of our greatest challenges as Juarez, just over the border in Mexico, exclusively serves the Mexican market and the US carriers serving El Paso want to route passengers through their main hubs,” she tells Airport World.
“We have had international flights before, but not since an inbound service from Mexico back in 2006, so getting them back will be a huge challenge.
“Is there the demand? A lot of people ask about them, and we continue to meet with the airlines to discuss this with them as we believe that there is potential for services to Chihuahua and other cities, but providing the data to make a business case to them is difficult as we don’t have figures for the number of people that currently drive to Juarez to catch flights to Mexico.”
Domestically, Lombraña has no doubt that the location of Fort Bliss and number of law enforcement agencies based in El Paso, alone, would justify the launch of services to Washington DC, and believes that there is enough demand for a New York service, but the long distances involved and airline economics have so far left her frustrated.
“We are actively working to increase our route network, but there are challenges that come with being a small hub and our geographical location,” she muses.
Having said that, ELP has managed to add three new airlines (Allegiant, Frontier and Alaska) and five new destinations to its network over the last three-and-a-half years, during which time it has also gained 19 new services on existing routes, so Lombraña and her team are clearly doing something right.
Regardless of what the future holds for ELP in terms of its route development, Lombraña feels that the airport does, and always will play, a vital role in both Texas’ and the US’s airport system.
“Geographically, El Paso is quite isolated from the rest of Texas and most of the US, so the airport provides an absolutely vital air transportation role for the 700,000 people that live in the city and 2.5 million within a two-hour drive of the airport,” she explains.
“To put that in perspective, we are the same distance from Houston, Texas, as we are from Long Beach, California, which is three states away. The car or other means of transport just really isn’t an option for most journeys.”
ELP is also a powerful economic engine for the region, directly employing 15,800 staff and contributing $2.2 billion to the local economy in 2017, according to an Economic Impact Study carried out by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Changing people’s perceptions
El Paso will shortly host the annual SMART Airports and Regions Conference & Exhibition and Lombraña is very much looking forward to it and showcasing the city, region and, of course ELP, to the world.
She also openly admits that changing people’s perceptions of El Paso is a major reason for wanting to host the conference as she believes that some have completely the wrong idea of the city based on its US-Mexico border location, Juarez’s reputation as a violent city and media coverage of migration issues.
“People that think of El Paso as being an old, dusty old town which is quite dangerous could not be further from the truth,” she says.
“We are actually one of the safest and friendliest cities in the US and I want people to experience this for themselves when they visit and leave with a whole new impression of our city.”
Sounds like some true Texas hospitality awaits those lucky enough to be in El Paso for event on July 22-24 this year.